Our journalism needs your support! Become a member
The Bristol Cable

How the air we breathe is a matter of equality

In Bristol’s inner city areas, residents produce less air pollution than wealthier suburbs – but suffer the worst effects.

Edition 18

In Bristol’s inner city areas, residents produce less air pollution than wealthier suburbs – but suffer the worst effects. What can be done to tackle the crisis?

Illustration: Joe Watson-Price

Bristol’s air kills. Each year, nearly 300 premature deaths in the city are attributable to air pollution, according to a report commissioned by council and carried out by the independent organisation Air Quality Consultants in 2017. Traffic accidents, by contrast, claim just 12 lives a year. On average, a day spent on the streets of Bristol does as much damage as smoking between 1–2 cigarettes, and the same goes for babies, children and the elderly.

Air pollution does not affect the city’s citizens equally, though. Instead, in Bristol, as with other parts of the country, it is the inner city neighbourhoods who pay the highest price.

Research by the University of the West of England, published in 2017, examined the link between poverty and exposure to air pollution. It shows that Bristol’s wealthier commuter residents experience less air pollution than people in the inner city. Residents in central wards are, in effect, paying the price for commuters’ pollution.

Damning mortality rates

This injustice can be clearly seen in Bristol’s mortality data. While air pollution accounts on average for 8.5% of all premature deaths in the city, according to the council’s report, in some poorer central wards that figure is nearly 11%. In Lawrence Hill, for instance, which is surrounded by busy through-roads, the mortality rate from air pollution-related illnesses stands at 10.8%. The ward also has the highest levels of childhood asthma in the city. By contrast, in the more affluent Westbury-on-Trym and Henleaze, the rate is 7.9%.

As may be expected, the central, more deprived wards have lower levels of car ownership. Households are less likely to own multiple cars, drive less, and typically have lower household emissions overall than wealthier areas.

Dr Jo Barnes, who led the study at UWE, said: “The differential between those who are generating the emissions, and those who are suffering from them is something we need to tackle very keenly.”

Air pollution in Numbers

the approximate number of deaths attributed to air pollution each year in Bristol
the percentage of deaths in Bristol attributed to air pollution each year
the percentage of nitrogen dioxide that is from local, man-made sources, over half of which being from local road traffic
the safe level of exposure to particulate matter – there is no safe level of exposure

Source: Health impacts of air pollution in Bristol, Air Quality Consultants, 2017


Solutions on the horizon?

So how can air pollution be effectively tackled? One idea that looks set to be adopted in Bristol is a Clean Air Zone (CAZ). This would lead to highly polluting vehicles (such as older diesels) being charged to enter the city centre. Through these charges, the council hopes to deter drivers and prevent illegal breaches of air quality limits.

Jerome Thomas, Green Party councillor for Clifton, is wary of pinning too much hope on a CAZ. “We’ve got to be much more ambitious about getting people out of cars. Currently, the city is excessively congested, and if we grow and car usage stays the same, it will be total gridlock. We need action on [public] transport now.”


Nothing is more important than the air we breathe. And it is no secret that Bristol’s air is filthy, and getting filthier. What is hidden, though, is the extent to which air pollution does not affect our fellow citizens equally. Simply put, the poorest suffer the most. I thought this injustice couldn’t – and shouldn’t – be allowed to continue to be unexamined and unheard. I sincerely hope it helps open the eyes and ears of those in power.

Alex Diggins

CAZ’s are in some ways haphazard, imperfect solutions, but go some way in dealing with an urgent public health crisis. Some critics have pointed out that CAZ’s rely on widely-criticised emissions data. Under the council’s proposed plans, less polluting ‘Euro 6’ diesel engines and ‘Euro 4’ petrol engines will be exempt from charges. But as the infamous ‘dieselgate’ scandal showed, under real-world conditions car engines are far more polluting than manufacturers promise. Indeed, some Euro 6 engines have been found to release up to eleven times more pollutants when on the streets than in laboratory conditions.

Bristol council is also considering other, more localised options to tackle air pollution from traffic. One proposal would see anti-idling zones introduced across the city, to prevent motorists from running their engines near especially vulnerable locations like schools and hospitals. It is already illegal to idle, and motorists face a £20 fine if caught. But councils have historically found it difficult to enforce. It is hoped the four pilot anti-idling schemes to be introduced by autumn 2019 – with a view to rolling them out across the city – will help to curb the practice, though.

Lib Dem Councillor Mark Wright celebrated the proposed zones as a victory against “those irresponsible individuals who pollute our air and damage our health with their horrible, selfish laziness.” But Green Councillor Eleanor Combley warned that the proposals did not go far enough. “We need walking and cycling infrastructure and investment in public transport,” she said. “Give Bristolians a real alternative and free them from the stranglehold of the private car.”

A day spent on the streets of Bristol does as much damage as smoking between 1–2 cigarettes.

Further inequalities

A CAZ, however, might end up exacerbating inequalities. “Charging people [to enter the city centre] is all well and good,” said Simon Holmes, headteacher of St Philips Marsh Nursery School. “But unless you put in alternatives, it’s just going to create resentment. It will be a punitive measure for people who don’t have a choice.”

St Philips Marsh Nursery School is at the epicentre of the air pollution debate. It lies in an Air Quality Management zone, which means the council closely monitors pollutant levels in the area. St Philips Causeway roars close by and, Holmes admits, “People don’t even realise we’re here, they think it’s just an industrial estate.”

“Parents are very aware of air pollution,” Holmes says. “But we don’t see a plan to address these issues.” School policies do their part: car-sharing, staggered drop-off and pick-up times to reduce congestion, and walking and cycling are encouraged. But, Holmes points out, these initiatives are a drop in the ocean in comparison with what needs to be done.

The St Philips Marsh area is the site of frenzied property speculation. Reams of planning applications, including for the much-touted Bristol Temple Enterprise Quarter, have been submitted. This regeneration is, Holmes notes, “the perfect opportunity to do something different. To provide a joined-up plan that looks at affordable housing, jobs, transport, education and green spaces.” But, he warns, “we need an integrated solution, and there’s little evidence of that currently.”

Rhetoric into reality

Stuart Phelps, a core member of RADE, a local campaign group, agrees that bold, comprehensive plans are needed to tackle air pollution—including addressing inadequate public transport and poverty.

“There’s no use going to an area like Easton, and saying you’ve got to stop using cars. Because there’s no viable alternative,” he said. “Around here, we’ve got massive amounts of housing need. It’s impossible to think that’s going to be met without huge increases in traffic, unless something radical is done in terms of transport.”

Bristol’s better-off residents should be more conscious of their impact in the city, says Phelps. He points to the example of wood burning stoves, which had virtually disappeared until becoming evermore fashionable in recent year.

There’s room for optimism though. Asked about the council’s pledge to make Bristol carbon neutral by 2030, Phelps is cautiously hopeful that this rhetoric might translate into more radical action against air pollution—and into solving the economic inequalities that underpin it. “It begins to start a conversation,” he said. “It’s very early days, but you can begin to link up people’s aspirations and their desire to see change.”


Report a comment. Comments are moderated according to our Comment Policy.

  • The St Philips Marsh nursery is actually also right beside the GWR High Speed Train maintenance depot which was built in 1976. This means diesel fumes are magnified and concentrated in a very small area. The School really needs to be relocated in reality as it’s no longer next to or near houses or homes which disappeared many years ago.


  • Thanks for raising this, Alex. You have not mentioned the Mayor’s failure to meet the EU/UK government’s legally binding deadline to publish a CAZ plan for Bristol. In your research did you come across any evidence that the Mayor is stalling, for mayoral re-election reasons, on publishing and implementing the expert advisors’ recommendations on CAZ options? Are those with diesel cars proportionately more of his core vote? What proportion of his core vote would benefit from a CAZ? Keep up the pressure! Thank you.


  • Thank you for raising Bristol’s illegal levels of air pollution, Alex. You have not mentioned that the Mayor has failed to meet the EU/UK government’s legally-binding deadline to publish a CAZ plan for Bristol. In your research did you find any evidence that the Mayor, for upcoming mayoral/Labour re-election reasons, is stalling on publishing and implementing the expert advisors’ recommendations on the most effective CAZ option? Are those with diesel cars who would be affected by an effective CAZ a significant proportion of the Mayor/Labour’s core vote? What proportion of the Mayor/Labour’s core vote is inner city residents who would benefit from an effective CAZ?


  • It’s excellent that Bristol Cable has highlighted the illegal levels of air pollution in the city, and how the worst effects are disproportionately felt by the poor.

    As to the potential solutions, while improving public transport (lower cost, increased reliability and connectivity) is a good thing, it will only serve to increase capacity on the road network. As the article points out CAZs with charging can further penalise those with little disposable income.

    Another way to reduce traffic levels, is to reduce space dedicated to traffic. This would mean reducing the amount of car parking and road space given over to private cars. The reclaimed space can then be given over to: public transport; walking; and, cycling. By reducing supply of road space for private cars, we’d reduce demand: the inverse of induced demand (footnote 1). While this may seem radical, it has already been done in many cities across the world. Most notably in Copenhagen and the Netherlands.

    In terms of cost effectiveness, restructuring for walking and cycling is more effective than investment in public transport. It is also cheaper for the public to use. With a large number of journeys in Bristol <5km (footnote 2), it makes sense to prioritise walking and cycling. They’re cheap, efficient, non-polluting: and, have well documented mental and physical health benefits.

    Of course, there is also the question of why people have to commute so much: whether that be for work, school, shopping or leisure activities. That comes down to years of city planning based around the private car, combined with the effects of land-banking & gentrification. BCC and WECA need to look at planning self-sufficient local areas, where all the majority of amenities are accessible by foot/bicycle. A shift from business rates and council tax to the much more equitable Land Value Tax, would go a long way to increasing supply of affordable housing.

    1. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Induced_demand

    2. https://bristolcycling.org.uk/knowing-where-to-spend-money/


  • Thank you for the comments. It’s excellent to know that so many Cable readers are already passionate and well-informed about the issue.

    To address to particular questions:

    Kate: I’m not sure why the council has delayed publishing a CAZ action plan. They consistently delayed and prevaricated when I reached out for comment. Which was frustrating as, while the situation is complex, Bristol’s citizens deserve clarity and acknowledgement that the administration understands the problems which might arise from a CAZ and plans to address air pollution through other, more preferable methods as well.

    David: I can only agree with your comments. Of course, I was limited somewhat by space in my feature in terms of highlighting potential solutions, but I agree that those you highlight – especially prioritizing people over cars – are achievable and realistic with a little bit of political will and imagination.

    I would say that the Cable is currently considering a campaign around clean air. So if this topic resonates with you, I encourage you to vote for it. Then it’s resources can be dedicated to uncovering more of the solutions and problems you highlight.


  • The effects of air pollution are not disproportionately felt by the poor. The majority of inner city wards are the wealthiest. While 8 out of 10 of the most deprived wards are in the suburbs. CAZ is a proposal to improve the air quality of the wealthiest in the city at the expense of the poorest’s, already impaired, mobility.
    Deprivation by ward is here:


    • This is not true. Many inner city areas, particularly in Easton, St Judes, St Pauls are among the 10% most deprived in England. As with most cities, ‘inner city’ areas of Bristol are not as a rule all wealthy.

      Effects of air pollution are disproportionately felt by the poor because rates of death from air pollution in deprived wards like Lawrence Hill are 10% or more – higher than those in wealthier areas like Clifton – despite rates of car ownership also being very low.


  • BCC stats from the report cited above show these as the top 10 most deprived wards:
    Lawrence Hill, Filwood, Hartcliffe, Whitchurch Park, Southmead, Kingsweston, Bishopsworth, Lockleaze, Ashley, Henbury
    Of those only Lawrence Hill and Ashley can be considered inner city.
    Other BCC stats show that over half of those most deprived wards are also on the 10 wards with lowest deaths due to air pollution https://www.bristol.gov.uk/documents/20182/32675/Health+Impacts+of+Air+Pollution+in+Bristol+February+2017.pdf/4df2fce5-e2fc-4c22-b5c7-5e7a5ae56701
    Of course that could be because people in deprived areas tend to die of something else first. And the ward boundaries changed between those two sets of stats so the comparison isn’t straight-forward. But still it’s clear that the most deprived areas aren’t in general the polluted inner-city areas.


Post a comment

Mark if this comment is from the author of the article

By posting a comment you agree to our Comment Policy.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Related content

Bristol Clean Air Zone under fire as delays mean exemptions only lasting three months

The council has asked central government for an extension to the exemption period, amid residents' concerns about upcoming daily charges.

Concerns remain about Bristol’s Clean Air Zone, six months before launch

Criticisms of the Clean Air Zone include not enough support for businesses and legal pollution limits being too high.

Bristol was one of five areas with illegal air pollution in 2020

The city’s Clean Air Zone is finally coming into force next summer after multiple delays. Campaigners say it can’t come soon enough.

Cutting Bristol’s air pollution could help citizens’ mental as well as physical health

Evidence increasingly suggests that traffic pollutants can adversely affect the brain, impact cognitive function, and increase the risk of mental health problems. Bristol’s Clean Air Zone cannot come too soon.

Bristol Clean Air Zone approved for summer 2022, nearly a year later than planned

Support for greener transport and exemptions have finally been announced, four years after the government ordered Bristol to tackle illegal levels of air pollution

Greens and Labour are close in Windmill Hill, where climate, air pollution and housing are key concerns for locals

It’s likely to be a tight fight in Windmill Hill again, after Labour beat the Greens by just a few hundred votes last election.

Join our newsletter

Get the essential stories you won’t find anywhere else

Subscribe to the Cable newsletter to get our weekly round-up direct to your inbox every Saturday

Join our newsletter

Subscribe to the Cable newsletter

Get our latest stories & essential Bristol news
sent to your inbox every Saturday morning